Ellen Stewart founded La MaMa in 1961 in a tiny basement theatre at 321 East 9th Street so that her brother and his friends would have a place to create and perform their theatre works. Ellen dedicated La MaMa to the playwright and all aspects of the theatre. It was Ellen who welcomed artists who were underrepresented, underfunded, and often misunderstood, at a time when the perception of what theatre could be was changing rapidly. For artists such as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Tom O’Horgan, and Philip Glass, La MaMa was their first artistic home. As Ellen toured internationally with her band of artists, she encountered the work of many world artists such as Tadeusz Kantor, Andrei Serban, Kazuo Ohno, The Tokyo Kid Brothers. She succeeded in bringing these artists to America to present their work at La MaMa.
La MaMa was one of the first “non-mainline” theatres to support full-time resident companies such as The La MaMa Troupe directed by Tom O’Horgan; Mabou Mines, directed by Lee Breuer; The E.T.C. Company directed by Wilford Leach; La MaMa Plexus directed by Joel Zwick; The Great Jones Repertory directed by Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados; The Jarboro Troupe directed by Hugh Gittens; The Third World theatre Institute, T.W.I.T.A.S (Philippines); Theatre of the Eye directed by Tom Eyen; The Play-House of the Ridiculous, directed by John Vaccaro; The American Indian Theatre Ensemble directed by Hanay Geiogamah; La MaMa Chinatown, directed by Wu Jing-jyi and Ching Yeh of Taiwan — out of which grew The Pan Asian Repertory directed by Tisa Chang; Ping Chong and Company; Laughing Stone directed by Sin Cha Hong; The Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet directed by Larry Ree; Kinding Sindaw, directed by Potri Ranka Manis from the Maranao people of the Philippines, dedicates their works to preserve the indigenous ritual and court dances and music of Southern Philippines; The Yara Arts Group (Mongolia) directed by Virlana Tkacz, which introduced the Buryat; Slant (Asia), created by Rick Ebihara, Wayland Quintero and Perry Yung; Otrabanda directed by Roger Babb; Actors Without Borders – ITONY directed by Zishan Ugurlu, and The Shaliko Company directed by Lee Shapiro. These companies have served as ambassadors of experimental culture in all corners of the world. La MaMa has been and continues to be the preeminent international portal for experimental theatre.
Ground breaking work happens at La MaMa because we believe in giving artists the time and space to refine their creative process as they make new work. Artists like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Tan Dun, Joel Zwick, Mike Figgis, Jackie Curtis, Blue Man Group, John Kelly, David and Amy Sedaris -and others whose names you haven’t heard of yet – began at La MaMa. We wish we could name everyone who has been part of our history but all of our artists and resident companies – past, present, and future – contribute to the living and breathing artistic legacy of La MaMa.
La MaMa has been honored with over thirty Obie Awards, dozens of Drama Desk Awards, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards. In 2018, La MaMa received the Regional Theatre Tony Award.
Today La MaMa is a world renowned cultural institution located in 4 buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. La MaMa's campus is home to four theatres, an art gallery, a six-storey rehearsal studio building, a visiting artist dormitory, commercial and not for profit office spaces, and an extensive archive documenting the history of Off-Off Broadway.